Fall into a new book
Balancing reverence for nature with respect for the limits of human knowledge, the books reviewed below offer a mix of scientific
optimism and caution. Tag along on a voyage to planets where alien life thrives, or join a wacky romp to the future where origami
robots take shape. Delve into a tale of a controversial predator reintroduction program or belly up to an evolution-inspired feast.
Why would a man risk his life for a stranger? How did primitive tissue transplants evolve into “off-the-shelf” organs? What might
a scientist learn from Buddhist philosophy or from steampunk fiction? These answers and more await you.
The Fear Factor
Reviewed by Katherine E. Himes
More than 20 years ago, the selfless act of a
complete stranger affected the course of Abigail Marsh’s life. Now a social psychologist, in
The Fear Factor, Marsh invites readers to join
her as she explores the biology underlying
extraordinary altruism. Translating technical papers into easily understood prose and
incorporating personal stories, she answers
the question of why a man risked his life to
save hers and reveals the complex connections among fear, altruism, and psychopathy.
To study extraordinary altruism, Marsh
voyages through psychology and neurosci-
ence experiments and travels deep inside
the brain, unmasking the integral role of
the amygdala, an almond-shaped collection
of neurons. She revisits classic studies, such
as Stanley Milgram’s controversial research
on obedience, and draws upon brain imag-
ing studies of kidney donors (a population
that serves as a proxy for extraordinary al-
truism) to build the book’s thesis. Repeat-
edly emphasized and well supported, Marsh
uncovers that a person’s sensitivity to oth-
ers’ fear serves as a strong marker for both
extraordinary altruism and psychopathy.
(Extraordinary altruists display high sensi-
tivity to others’ fear, with low sensitivity a
hallmark of psychopathy.) Amygdala activ-
ity and the brain chemical oxytocin form
the biological bases for these behaviors.
Chapter by chapter, Marsh moves from
heroic to “antiheroic” behavior, from the psy-
chopathic brain and brains of children with
psychopathic tendencies, then to “the other
side of the curve.” Here, she describes the
extraordinary altruists and the “milk of hu-
man kindness,” oxytocin. She closes with a
chapter addressing whether humans can be
better, both as individuals and as societies.
Many recent books that address fear focus
on overcoming anxiety, modifying behavior
to influence neural activation patterns, tech-
nical aspects of the amygdala, or detailed lab-